Apple created the Photos app to replace the now defunct iPhoto on the Mac. It isn't the Aperture competitor some were hoping for, and its fundamental design philosophy is quite different to iPhoto (being cloud-focused it's simply more up to date), but for basic to moderate picture-related tasks it's hard to fault. Indeed, those who dislike it tend to hate more the infrastructure behind it, such as the tight tie-in with the iCloud photos sync process.
Those people, as well as anybody who's simply curious, will be pleased to hear alternatives to Photos exist. Here we take a look at those inexpensive or even free offerings that are good for the less demanding end of the image-editing user base.
We're talking about apps that just about anybody can get to grips with, and that offer results without a near-vertical learning curve, but check out our separate guide to the best Mac photo-editing software for professionals if you need something more advanced.
There are two sides to Photos' coin. The first is image management - that is, cataloguing your photos, creating organisational albums, and providing quick access, such as tagging and searching facilities. The second side of the coin is photo editing and tweaking. In this article we look at apps that scratch one or other of the itches, and often both.
As with all things Google, its Photos product exists mostly online and is mostly accessed via a web browser. It's also free to use if you have a Google account: just visit http://photos.google.com.
All your photos are stored in Google's cloud and for Google Photos to access your existing library of photos there's a small Mac app you can install that'll upload everything as well as set up monitoring of your system for any and all new photos that are find their way onto your hard disk (there are also iOS and Android apps for the same task).
For example, insert into your Mac a SD card, or attach the camera by USB cable, and the app will grab the photos and upload them to Google's cloud. The Mac app offers two upload options. The first will upload what Google calls "high quality" images, although these are "at reduced file size". You can upload as many of these as you want, for free, literally without limit.
However, if you want to upload full original-quality images - a useful way of freeing up disk space - you'll need to use some of your Google Drive space. If you haven't got enough of that then you'll need to buy some, although bear in mind you get 15GB free and, although the likes of Gmail also eat into that, it's enough space for a healthy-sized image library.
When accessed via the browser, Google Photos is mostly an image organiser and cataloguing service. Once images are uploaded you can add them to albums, for example, or even create collages or animations (that is, slideshows). This being Google, you can also share images and albums easily with others by sending them a link.
Google Photos' big and impressive trick is to recognise the content of photos automatically, based on neural network identification and metadata. Type "water" into the search field, for example, and you'll filter your collection to just images containing shots of the sea, or rivers, or lakes. Type "woman" and you'll see just images of, well, women. You can even enter sophisticated search phrases like "man in Croydon". It works pretty well and certainly saves the effort of individually tagging images.
Google Photos' weakness appears when it comes time to edit or tweak images. You're limited to sliders letting you adjust the lightness and colour (there's no dedicated contrast control, for whatever reason), as well as "pop" and vignette. The latter appears to simultaneously adjust contrast, edge enhancement and saturation, while the former adds a circular shadow to the corners of the image to focus attention on the middle of it.
A handful of ready-made filters are also available, and you can rotate/crop images. But that's about it. There are no brush-based tools, or the ability to mask images so you can selectively edit just one part of an image. There's no discrete sharpen tool.
To edit any image in your own choice of editor on your Mac, you have to first download it, then edit it, and finally upload it again. Yeah, you're right. That's annoying.
Still, as a genuine replacement for Photos in the cataloguing and vital cloud-storage/sharing department, Google Photos is about as good as it gets. And provided you don't mind letting Google see all your snapshots, it's free.
Check out our Apple Photos vs Google Photos comparison to find out more about how the two services stack up.
Elegant simplicity is the name of the game with Unbound, which you can get for £9.99 from the Mac App Store. Essentially, it's a photos file manager, although it's optimised for displaying galleries.
Just point it at your existing photo folders when it starts for the first time, or via its Preferences dialog box at a later date, and it'll then show each folder of images as an album within its interface. Create a new album in Unbound and it'll appear as a new folder on your hard disk. Move images into this new album using Unbound, and they'll be moved into the folder. Right-click to delete an image or folder in Unbound and it'll be sent to the Trash.
You surely get the impression. This is super simple stuff. Alas, this means there's no face-recognition or other cleverness - although there is a simple, straightforward text-search option for locating albums/folders. However, Unbound can play simple slideshows, display EXIF information (that is, technical data recorded within the image by the camera), and can also use GPS location data to display photos on a map.
There's zilch when it comes to photo editing, although you can right-click on photos within Unbound in order to open them within Preview or any other photo-editing program. Again, because Unbound is essentially a glorified file manager, the edits will appear immediately within Unbound once you tap save in that other app.
There's no cloud storage integration per se but if you use Dropbox or similar then you can point Unbound at your Dropbox folder and use it to manage what's there. The iOS version of Unbound works in conjunction with Dropbox and allows you to sync photos across all your Macs and iOS devices, but will cost you a further £2.99.
We could criticise Unbound for being so simple but that's the whole point. In fact, the only real criticism we have is that it's not compatible with the Photos image archive bundle. In other words, Unbound can't manage your Photos library (or at least not without first exporting each and every one of them), and nor can you use Unbound alongside Photos.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 15
We tried to limit ourselves to inexpensive offerings here and at £79.99 on the Mac App Store, Photoshop Elements fulfils that brief in no way, shape or form. Outside of pro software we can think of few offerings that come with that kind of price.
However, Photoshop Elements simply can't be bettered if you're looking for a Mac-based image editing and cataloguing app that just about anybody can use. Adobe cherry-picked the useful features of the pro-level Photoshop, while adding a whole bunch of easy-to-use tools.
As with Apple's Photos app, there are two strings to the bow of Photoshop Elements. The first is the separate Organiser app. This provides tools for organising your photo collection, and is very similar to Photos, with options for grouping together events, faces (via automatic recognition) and places.
It's also possible to create projects like slideshows, photo DVDs, and printed media like calendars or photobooks. Unique to Organiser is the Live tab, which contains links to third-party tutorials for Photoshop Elements, as well as good examples of images produced using the software.
Then there are the photo-editing tools within the Photoshop Elements app. These go way beyond anything you'll find in Photos or indeed within most image-editing apps. There's a set of automatic Smart Fix tools to help beginners get started, and a special Guided Edit mode that can give you step-by-step help with tasks such as restoring old photos or using photographic techniques such as the hazy Orton Effect.
New to Elements 14 is the ability to magically remove camera shake and haze from photos, and both worked spookily well in our tests.
Alternatively, you can switch to Expert mode to get a toolbar reminiscent of Photoshop and, indeed, you'll find most of the useful tools found there, such as selection, heal, clone, and so on. Although it looks different, Expert mode genuinely is reminiscent of the real, full Photoshop experience.
In terms of one-click filters and effects, this is another area where Photoshop Elements leaves Photos trailing in its wake. The program's Filter Gallery has its own editing mode, where you can explore dozens of artistic effects, as well as having fun by stretching and distorting your photos in various ways. You can see five versions of your photo that use different filter settings.
Do we recommend Photoshop Elements? Oh yes. It really is all the keenest amateur could ever need, although with the caveat there there's no cloud integration. This is an app for use if you want to keep your images on your Mac and not automagically share them across your iOS devices.
We'll never be happy with the rather greedy £80 retail price but shop around and you can get a boxed copy of Photoshop Elements 14 for less than £50 (ensure you don't confuse Photoshop Elements with Premiere Elements, which is a video editing package).
Note that this will require a DVD drive to install, and also note that Adobe's draconian software licensing protections mean you can't install any of its software on a computer that isn't online.
Weighing in at a questionable £23.99 on the Mac App Store - around twice the maximum we'd expect to pay for an app like this - Pixa has much in common with Unbound, reviewed earlier. It's a slightly more sophisticated photo cataloguing app, however, and if you find Unbound attractive but just too basic then it's worth investigating.
Like Photos and iPhoto before it, Pixa copies any images you add to its own library. This means that you needn't worry about accidentally erasing the originals. However, the rather clever Live Folder system means you can also configure Pixa to watch certain folders or even drives in order to automatically import any photos you add.
In other words, you could setup Pixa to monitor your Pictures folder and it’ll automatically grab anything you download from an SD card or via a USB cable.
Rather confusingly, Pixa refers to albums as Projects, but they're essentially exactly the same in operation. One difference is that several projects can subsequently be added to folders to create a higher level of organisation - you could create a folder called Holidays, for example, and have individual projects within it reflecting where you’ve been abroad.
Although the image library is stored on your Mac's hard disk, and there's no iOS version of Pixa, some cloud integration is possible via the share button that can automatically upload to Imgur, Dropbox, or CloudApp (sorry, Google Drive, Box or Microsoft OneDrive users!). Unfortunately, you can only have one of those set up at a time, with Imgur being the default if no other service is configured.
This took us by surprise when we initially clicked the button to see what would happen; there's no notification or confirmation that the image is about to be uploaded and shared with the world. One of our personal family images is now on Imgur, with no way to delete it!
You can add your own tags (keywords) to help with searches, but Pixa also helps out by analysing photos as you import them and adding tags relating to the size of each image and the dominant colours within the image. This is clever although perhaps of questionable usefulness unless it's as sophisticated as Google Photos' implementation.
As well as importing most photo file formats Pixa can also import graphics files such as screenshots and vector graphics files from programs like Adobe Illustrator, so it can be a handy tool for designers who work with lots of different graphics and photo formats. It even adds a special tool to the main menu bar on your Mac that allows you to capture screenshots and web pages to import into Pixa.
There are no photo editing tools in Pixa, or filters/effects, but it does include some useful export options that allow you to convert images into different sizes and file formats, and even templates for creating graphics such as iOS icons. You can right-click an image to edit it in another image editor you have installed and the changes are automatically reflected instantly within Pixa.
Polarr has no pretensions to be an image cataloguing and management app. However, it does let you open multiple images in order to compare them, or work on them in sequence. Notably, it can also work as a plugin for the main Photos app, which is to say once it’s enabled in the Extensions section of the System Preferences app, it’ll appear as an option when you choose to edit something within Photos. All of its functions will then appear within the Photos window.
Polarr costs £19.99 on the Mac App Store. In fact, there's also a free version of Polarr, without Photos integration and a handful of other things, such as premium photo packs, and we reckon it's best to use that as a free trial to get a taste for the app before making the investment.
And as an image editor, tweaker and improver, Polarr easily belies the low asking price. What's on offer is somewhere between the kind of pro tools offered by AfterShot Pro, reviewed earlier, and Photo's own modest editing toolkit. For example, you can easily adjust the colour temperature, tint, and vibrancy, as well as exposure, shadows, highlights, and so on.
Dig down and you'll find lens distortion correction and vignette tools are available, and even high-level tools like curves adjustment. We particularly liked the haze adjustment tool, that can remove wishy-washy skies in landscape pictures.
All these tools are located as a series of sliders and graphs at the right. Look to the left of the user interface, however, and you'll see a collection of ready-made one-click filters à la Instagram. These are not only lots of fun but actually very high-quality offerings.
Other things we liked enormously was the ability to step back in the editing history to not just undo a most recent edit but one several steps before if needed. The before-and-after comparison tool is also pretty cool. We're less inclined to write home about the masking tool, however, by which you can define smaller areas of the image to apply the effects to without affecting the rest. This appeared to be limited to just a radial selection tool, and a gradient selection tool. In other words, it wasn't possible to draw on the image via a brush to define an area.
There really is a lot to like in Polarr, which successfully bridges the gap between amateur and pro-level tools. All the folks behind Polarr have to do is add in elementary image cataloguing facilities and this app would be a very convincing competitor for Photos.